As a freshman, Jahlil Okafor made over 66 percent of his shots at a high usage at Duke. He got to the foul line, he rebounded, blocked some shots, and was generally unstoppable one-on-one in the post. He was the 3rd overall pick in the following NBA draft, and the results were as expected. He made over 50 percent of his 2s, averaged over 17 points and 7 rebounds a game, and seemed well-poised for a long and productive NBA career.
But that hasn't happened. Okafor is on his third NBA team, and barely plays. He averages fewer than 5 points a game. And he's 23 years old. He's still making his shots, and he's even turned himself in to a very capable free throw shooter. It's no secret why this has happened—of his nearly 1,500 field goal attempts, just 10 of those have been 3s. Okafor cannot shoot a three-pointer, which in today's NBA is a little like a slick fielding shortstop with no bat. Once upon a time, you could stitch together a Hall of Fame career with that skillset (Ozzie Smith did just that). Not so much these days. Patrick Ewing couldn't shoot a 3, and was no better on the block than Okafor. But I doubt you will be able to find an Okafor jersey on the rack in 15 years. You can still buy one of Patrick's, some 17 years after his retirement. Turns out, timing can be quite a thing.
Indiana's starting lineup does not feature a center. Neither does Nebraska's. Kaleb Wesson and Jon Teske are shooting 3s and running a lot of pick and pop action. The post area no longer seems like the popular destination it once was, but rather just the personal playspace of throwbacks like Ethan Happ.
But Fran McCaffrey is not abandoning the post just yet. To the contrary, nearly every Iowa possession features at least one post feed. And to be clear, it's not merely an attempt to immediately kick out for an open 3. McCaffrey wants to score in the post. And between Luka Garza and Tyler Cook, he has two excellent options to do so.
The main action Iowa runs to get the ball in the post is the screen and roll. The roller is not so much looking to receive a pass on his way to a dunk, but really just trying to buy some space to duck into a deep post position. From there, the challenge becomes trying to prevent double teams. Against Ohio State, Chris Holtmann initially wanted to see if the Buckeyes could get away with "showing," rather than a full post double. In order to counter, Iowa needed to threaten elsewhere (like how Cook fakes a cut, below) to ensure the Buckeyes stayed home.
This look is especially deadly when the post feed is coming from the other big man. Since other teams generally do not put two post defenders on the floor, Iowa usually has a size advantage at the "4." That creates the high-low look that offers minimal resistance to a post feed.
Later in the game, Holtmann decided his team could not defend the post action without double teams. For the high-low, the counter was to simply defend the post and let the passing big man try and hurt you from the outside. At first, this worked well.
But I'm guessing that Cook and Garza got some reminders from McCaffrey during a visit to the bench. Specifically, Cook is quick and explosive...
And Garza can shoot...
That's really the key to all of this working—Iowa's big men need to be able to do something with the ball outside of 10 feet if left open. Cook can drive it, Garza can hit a 3. If neither of those things were true, guarding post feeds becomes a lot easier.
Doubling the post after the catch can be a little risky, particularly with someone as explosive as Cook. He can get to the bucket well before help arrives. But if he does take his time, he's not a great passer, so double teams from the weak side can be effective.
Additionally, a very packed-in pack line can be effective, particularly when it's Cook on the perimeter (since Garza can hit a 3).
Still, it's important to note that these counters are coming with caveats, and another one worth noting is how poorly Iowa is shooting from 3 so far in Big Ten play (30.5 percent). The team shot 37 percent in non-conference play, and the roster is stacked with great outside shooters. I expect the outside shooting to get better, which is only going to punish post double teams even more.
If I'm being honest, I've been waiting to write about Iowa for about a month now, because I was not convinced the team was "for real" until then. Part of that was a lackluster non-conference schedule, but I was also a bit gun shy after last year's debacle of a season coming off an unexpectedly good one. The Hawkeyes did not lose a game in the non-conference, and now sit at 3-3 in Big Ten play, with wins over Nebraska and Ohio State. The team has yet to play Rutgers, Illinois, or Penn State, so it's not hard to see them finishing over .500 in league play. So we can probably count on at least some post action making its way to the Dance this year.